My wife and I will soon open a new chapter in our lives. As we near our middle years (according to human averages anyway) we decided to return to university to expand our education and begin new careers. Many factors contributed to this decision, but one in particular led the way…the issue of intrinsic v. extrinsic living.
Several months ago I was researching a sermon and discovered a story by Heinrich Böll that helps define this concept well:
An American businessman was standing at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish.
“How long did it take you to catch them?” The American asked.
“Only a little while.” The Mexican replied.
“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” The American then asked.
“I have enough to support my family’s immediate needs.” The Mexican said.
“But,” The American then asked, “What do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, señor.”
The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds you could buy a bigger boat, and with the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, and eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats.”
“Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the consumers, eventually opening your own can factory. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But senor, how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied, “15-20 years.”
“But what then, señor?”
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions.”
“Millions, señor? Then what?”
The American said slowly, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos…”
Because I grew up in America, I understand the attitude of the Harvard educated businessman. Our educational system and culture are geared toward achievement and a drive toward success in finances above everything. American culture is extrinsically driven, for the most part, and we see this in our attitudes toward one another and life. We want fast food, entertainment on demand, high paying jobs, and long vacations. Everything we do is extrinsically driven because we are taught to be motivated by money and success. We even call this insanity the “American Dream”…American Nightmare might be a better appellation.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18.1% of Americans are affected by anxiety in some way. I believe this stems from our culture’s obsession with extrinsic motivators. Sports champions receive rings, trophies, cash, and fame…extrinsic. Musicians or actors are rich and popular (seemingly anyway) and we fawn over them constantly…extrinsic. Business people are given bonuses, focus on metrics and numbers, and knock people down to grow the bottom line…extrinsic.
Extrinsic motivations are not entirely bad. We must not throw the baby out with the bath water. We all need a paycheck. We enjoy accolades and trophies. There is nothing wrong with people recognizing excellent work done by others. We cannot, however, expect to be driven solely by extrinsic motivations and find inner, intrinsic, peace and happiness.
Intrinsic motivations are driving my wife and me to make major life and career changes in our middle years. If we only cared about extrinsic motivations we would stay put and push on to larger bank accounts and the acquisition of things. We don’t care about those things anymore. Things are nice, but inner peace and joy are far greater than an expensive car or massive home.
Ultimately, we find our inner peace through connecting with the divine. When we open ourselves to God we experience what the book of Galatians calls the “fruit of the Spirit”. This “fruit” is now the driving force in my life. My thoughts and focus are on growing the intrinsic values of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. For what good are things if I am unable to enjoy them because my inner life is in turmoil?